We’re home! Our plane touched down at 10:40 PM.
This was my first vacation in 9-months with the exception of several “long weekends.” I thought I could do it, even though I’m still unsure what “it” is. Is “it” the desire to have others admire me because I’m willing to not take the vacation time which I have earned? Is “it” the desire to have others admire me because I’m living the American dream? You know the dream, working 80-hour weeks and then complaining about working 80-hour weeks? Id it the voice of my mother in my head remind me as she did when I was much younger, “You shouldn’t complain. You should be happy you have a job. There are a lot of people out of work who would want your job.” There’s the guilt with which I grew up!
Sunday night we returned from dinner and a light rain was falling. I don’t think anyone wanted to admit it but we were all pretty happy about the rain although I’m fairly certain I was the only one who takes as much pleasure in rain as I do. The rain “forced us to take some time off.” Time off while on vacation! What does that even mean? You know you’ve said the same thing. Right now I’m typing this as I’m taking “one additional day off to recover from my vacation before I return to work.”
What a crazy time in which we live, taking time off from taking time off. We no longer know how to relax and simply be. We inaccurately throw around words like being “mindful” because we believe our vocabulary will bring happiness and when it doesn’t, we damn “mindfulness.” Of course I’m not sure we ever understood that concept of relaxing and enjoying the moment in which we are presently in and in not judging it. So anyway, back to the light rain falling on Sunday night…I was checking out Facebook, because the blinking blue light on my phone told me to. I ran across something my niece had posted on her blog. She talked about doing this challenge called #100HappyDays. I smiled, thought about engaging in this for about a minute and then moved on. I have been a therapist for almost 30-years and I do this for a living. I don’t think that makes me an expert by any stretch of the imagination as there are times when I have to work really hard for that smile, the smile which is the outward representation which denotes someone’s happiness. I read a post on Kricky’s blog (http://krickykonoronhkwa.wordpress.com/) which got me thinking. Why not? What can it hurt? Do I really take the time to notice the little things around me, everyday? There was also a comment on the website advertising this photo challenge, it challenged me with what I know all too well…guilt. The statement asked, “Can you be happy for 100-days in a row?” It then said, “You don’t have time for this, right?!” I thought for a minute and said, “I do have time for this.” It’s not about finding the time, it’s about making the time for those things which are important to us. HAPPINESS is very important to me. I have a “Gratitude” basket which sits on the corner of my desk. Everyday I add one slip of paper which denotes something for which I was thankful that day. I thought, “This challenge isn’t much of a challenge for me as I see many things everyday which bring me happiness, so, I decided to take this challenge. The challenge for me will be my perception of those things around me.
The “challenge” in this challenge, is, in my opinion the ability to look at or see things differently. A Facebook friend commented on my check-in at the Tampa airport and she asked, “Leaving?” I responded, “Yes…sadly.” My cousin commented, “Leaving is always the hardest part but you can’t be sad about the departure unless you had the thrill of the arrival!” Well said Collin. This statement could not be more true. See, it is in our perceptions, our happiness and our sadness. Some of us cry because we no longer have a loved one in our lives and some of us cry because we are happy to have this individual cross our path and to recognize they have enriched our lives for their very presence. I’m the guy at the funeral who says, “I’m going to miss that person but I am truly thankful I had the opportunity to share as many years with that person as I did.”
If your heart so desires or if you can “find” the time, follow me on throughout this “challenge on Instagram (henrydavidthoreau) where I’ll be posting those photos or on my Facebook page. Just look me up. You know the name. There are 24-hours in a day. If you can’t find 5-minutes to be happy or to identify those things which bring or have brought us happiness, that is sadness.
As pen touches paper, my thoughts pour from the nib much like the rain which is falling outside. The weather forecast is predicting 4 to 8 inches of new snow beginning Tuesday night. With this news sadness begins to find me once again. I reach for my fountain pen and write in my journal in the attempt to relieve the stress which has been building.
I felt compelled to share this beautiful story written David Menasche at CNN. I was moved by this story because it was a teacher who shared her passion with me that helped me to be where I am today and also helped me to share my passion for life and for change with my patients.
For 16 glorious years, I taught 11th-graders at a magnet high school in Miami. For me, teaching wasn’t about making a living. It was my life.
Nothing made me happier or more content than standing in front of a classroom and sharing the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jack Kerouac, Tupac Shakur and Gwendolyn Brooks and watching my students “catch” my passion for language and literature.
I loved watching these 15- and 16-year-olds grapple with their first major life decisions — future careers, relationships, where to live, which colleges to attend, what to study– at the same moment they’re learning to drive and getting their first jobs and experimenting with identity and independence.
There wasn’t a day when I didn’t feel privileged to be part of their metamorphoses and grateful for the chance to affect their lives.
My classroom was my sanctuary, so on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer at 34 and told I had less than a year to live, I did what I always did. I went to school. I needed my students to know that I trusted them enough to share life’s most sacrosanct passage. Death.
They, in turn, helped me to live in the moment and spend whatever time I had left living well. For six years, the only time I wasn’t in class was when I was undergoing brain surgery. I never avoided the topic of my cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, with my students, but it was not something I dwelled on, nor did they.
I covered my bald, lacerated head with a woolen hat and scheduled chemotherapy around my classes, and I got so good at being sick that I could run to the bathroom, heave into the toilet, flush, brush my teeth and fly back to class in under three minutes. They pretended not to notice. During that time, I even won “Teacher of the Year” for my region. I was grateful for every breath and felt as if I could live that way forever.
Then, two summers ago, the tumor in my head decided to act up. I was playing pool with a friend when I was struck with a catastrophic seizure that left me crippled and mostly blind. After two months of physical therapy and a grim prognosis for improvement, I was forced to face that I could no longer be the teacher I once was and I tendered my resignation.
The cancer had finally succeeded in taking me out of the classroom, but I wasn’t ready to let it take me out of the game. I wasn’t afraid to die. I was afraid of living without a purpose.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, a person who has a why to live can always find a how. My “why” had always been my students. I just needed to find a new “how.” Since I no longer had a classroom for them to come to me, I decided that I would go to them.
In September of 2012, I posted my plan on Facebook. I said I wanted to spend whatever time I had left visiting with former students. My purpose was to have a chance to see firsthand how my kids were faring and to witness how, if at all, I had helped shape their young lives. It was an opportunity that few people ever get, but many, and particularly teachers, would covet.
Within hours of posting, I had invitations from students in more than 50 cities across the country. In early November, I set off on my journey, traveling across America by bus, by train, just me and my red-tipped cane.
Over the next three months, I traveled more than 8,000 miles from Miami to New York, to America’s heartland and San Francisco’s Golden Gate, visiting hundreds of my former students along the way. I had hoped I would discover that I’d instilled in at least some of them a lasting love of books and literature, and a deep curiosity about the world. But what my trip taught me was something even more gratifying.
What I learned from my travels was that my students had grown up to be kind and caring people.
People who picked me up when I fell over curbs, read to me from books I could no longer see, and cut my food when I could not grasp a knife. They shared with me their deepest secrets, introduced me to their families and friends, sang to me my favorite songs and recited my favorite poetry.
As I had hoped, they recalled favorite lessons and books from class, but, to my great surprise, it was our personal time together that seemed to have meant the most to them. Those brief, intimate interludes between lessons when we shared heartaches and vulnerabilities and victories were the times my students remembered.
And it was through them I realized that those very human moments, when we connected on a deep and personal level, were what made my life feel so rich, then and now. My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all. They taught me that what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.
I am a pragmatic man. I know there is no reason I should still be alive. The cancer never lets me forget that it and not I will ultimately win this battle of wills. I know the disease will have its way with me, and sooner, rather than later.
My limbs are withering and my memory is fading. Yet as my world dims from the tumor growing in my head, I see ever more clearly the gifts the promise of an early death has brought.
My travels are done, but my students are never more than a phone call or an e-mail or a Facebook message away. And from the lessons I learned on the road, I, to borrow from the great Lou Gehrig, will die feeling like the luckiest man on Earth.